Jonathan Lighter wuxxmupp2000 at YAHOO.COM
Sat May 19 20:40:31 UTC 2007

Interesting that a simple "please open the window" has begun to soundpositively rude.

  The various paraphrases have the advantage of length, so they sound less brusque and more engaged with the topic and the addressee.


James Harbeck <jharbeck at SYMPATICO.CA> wrote:
  ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
Sender: American Dialect Society
Poster: James Harbeck
Subject: Re: Thanks

>Recently I have attended numerous ceremonial occasions (academic and
>other) in which spreakers rise to express their gratitude to a
>particular individual or group. Almost invariably, they stop short
>of actually THANKING; rather, they declare that they "wish to thank"
>or (even more obliquely) "would like to thank" the benefactor. What
>is the stylistic purpose of mincing the matter thus? Why not just
>say, "I thank . . ."?

My guess is that they're simply retaining the conventional
association of greater indirectness with greater politeness. It's
thus a retention of a form for its usual effect even when the sense
is in the opposite direction of the original reason for the form --
it's probably plain enough that "open the window" is less polite than
"could you open the window," and a step further in indirectness is "I
would like you to open the window." But in the case you mention, the
demand -- which making would put the demander in a possibly
unacceptably higher status than the demandee -- is replaced with a
status transaction in the other direction, where there is no
status-related (or face-related) offence to the hearer to mitigate.
And yet the indirectness is still seen as more polite.

One might on the other side of the equation note that the indirect
phrasing preserves the utterer's status more, in that it does not
involve the actual literal status-costing act of thanking, but merely
an expression of inclination to it, which acknowledges indebtedness
but avoids the bare, on-record act.

And then there is the issue of "more words = more formal," which is a
rather simplistic way of putting it, but the indirectness of the
locution does have its own greater cost to the utterer and can impart
a greater sense of weight or moment to the utterance; formality is, I
believe, usually (not always) associated with greater verbiage. In
the economy of status interactions, "I thank you," being curter and
taking less effort than "I would like to thank you," costs the
utterer less and thus is less valuable.

There's also the choice of words: "wish," for instance, is perceived
as more formal than "want" (I have data on this from a study I did
recently: two separate groups (n>100 each), rating either "We want to
aggressively pursue this opportunity" or "We wish to aggressively
purse this opportunity," rated the formality of the "want" verson as
a mean of 3.49 out of 5, and of the "wish" version as a mean of 3.92
out of 5. A Student's t-test gives significance at 0.001. These
sentences were actually part of the distractor set from the study,
but it's an interesting snippet). Which doesn't directly address why
they would say either "wish" or "want" but, though I have no data for
this, I suspect that "I wish to thank" is seen as more formal than "I
thank" not only for the extra words but also by the influence of the
specific extra word used.

I'm betting that there are a few journal articles on just this topic,
but I'm not sure I have the energy at this very moment to go
searching for them. Someone with a better archive on the subject
might be able to toss one in readily.

James Harbeck.

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